Ken Loach has accused two of Britain’s biggest broadcasters of being in cahoots with the government. During a magazine interview published in ‘Short List’ (June 2014), the 78-year-old film director best known for gritty northern drama ‘Kes’, is asked whether a young Ken Loach could take advantage of the creative opportunities afforded by the rise in video-on-demand services:
While there is some truth in his observations about government involvement in television, there is merit in Loach’s criticism of TV’s failure to adequately reflect different attitdues within British society. However, to suggest this is the result of control or collusion between ministers and broadcasters falls wide of the mark.
Loach is correct to say the government plays an active role in the UK’s broadcasting infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the licensing of television services.
Although the BBC was originally established as a private company in 1922, since 1927 it has existed by virture of a royal charter – the terms of which are negotiated by ministers every ten years before being put to Parliament.
And while ITV has always been comprised of privately owned companies since its launch in 1955, the initial decision to establish a commercial television network in the UK (and the statues which continue to underpin it) have been enacted through government legislation.
Beyond licensing, the other key area in which government ministers continue to be involved is in establishing the regulatory framework within which British broadcasters operate.
The BBC Trust (2007) and Ofcom (2003) are responsible for oversight of the BBC and ITV respectively and both fall within the remit of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Its ministers and civil servant are instrumental in appointing senior executives to both bodies and in recent years these appointments have become highly politicised (Chris Patten at the BBC, Ed Richards at Ofcom).
But Loach confuses the state’s power of patronage with the ability to exert control and influence over editorial content. In reality, the very reason these regulatory bodies exist, is to ensure regulation takes place at arms-length from ministers.
Long before the creation of the BBC Trust and Ofcom, governance of the BBC was the responsibility of its Board of Governors whilst commercial television (ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 etc) was regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA).
In an article written for the IBA’s quartlery journal in the summer of 1988, a former Channel 4 executive said this system of governance and regulation creates a ‘buffer zone’ which ensures broadcasters are protected from political interference:
Print vs Broadcast
Unlike traditional print media which is free to express opinion and pledge allegiance to political parties, such liberties are not afforded to those licensed to provide television and radio services in the UK. In fact, broadcasters are specifically prohibited from doing so.